Inside 20th-century music
The purpose of the essays in this series is to treat some of the difficult questions frequently raised about "modern" music, weigh some rights and wrongs about it, possibly clear up some mysteries, as well as to look, from where we are, for signs of where we've been.mSkip to next paragraph
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My subject is music. Concert music: the art of music as it has been handed down to us from Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and all the rest of the revered names we can think of so quickly.
Now, the last thing that would suggest itself to most people about this wonderful art is that it is not enjoying a completely superb state of health right now. The incredible number of symphony orchestras which have sprung up in this land, coast to coast, and the available attendance figures on their concernts; the demonstrably growing appetite among the young for recordings of classical music; the new "crop" of music-related magazines; the mammoth popularity of public broadcasting's concert and opera offerings; and the indicators of large investments everywhere in consumer items having a classical music motif, from bookends to T-shirts: all of that would point to the conclusion that serious music has never had it so good.
And, to a certain extent, is true. But beneath the ticket-sales figures and the attendance records lies a nagging problem. It is peculiar to music in our age, and is not being addressed, at least with any visible directness, by all the business, big as it is.
The problem, in plain terms, lies in the fact that an art, like a language, thrives and survives only so long as freshness, creativity and spontaneity are brought to bear on its relationship with its users.
I sometimes find it easy to imagine the fate of the dodo bird or the Latin language for the art of music as we have known it over several centuries. Art music has become split, and the halves have been growing apart steadily for more than a generation. It is like the two faces of Janus. One side looks back with music lovers who wish to hear only musical masterworks of the past. The other is pointed straight toward a vision of vindication for the music that confounds and shocks today.
Who could begin to count the people who have gone to concerts, been confronted with a new -- contemporary -- work and been utterly baffled, befuddled and lost? I understand their reaction very well, and I feel that in a vast number of cases it is very legitimate. Especially in the light of the elitist attitude that our ears will someday be reconditioned to take in the dense abstractions of much of the recent avant-garde, and be open to all sorts of brand new sounds for a brave new world.
Both points of view are unfortunately narrow, and music, which needs creative people who produce and attentive ones who listen, can do nothing but suffer as a result. The heart of music which is honestly made and fully enjoyed lies somewhere between them. For us to close our minds to what is solid and moving in the music of our time too often means denying the possibility that those values exist. And the composer who busies himself with effects, experiments and "systems" is very likely to miss the point of what he is supposedly doing, namely expressing something with the end in mind of evoking a response in us.
Of course, I am aware that, even as I write this, things are changing. Some composers who have had a reputation in the past as formidable masters of the avant-garde, Krzysztof Penderecki and George Rochberg, for example, have been warming recently to the idea of writing music that is much more traditional in its implications and more accessible to listeners. And audiences have begun to inch toward them, to hear what they have to say. Other, younger composers have followed that path of late, such as David Del Tredici and the remarkable John Corigliano. Of course, most of the well known avant-garde approaches are still very much in our midst, represented by people like Pulitzer Prize-winner Joseph Schwantner and the by-now renowned George Crumb, as are the electronic music cadre, the multiple generations of 12-tone system disciples -- and those who have never abandoned their more obvious preference for aurally compelling music over doctrines and postulates, such as William Schuman, Peter Mennin or the late Samuel Barber. The ice, formed since the late 1950s, ism beginning to thaw a bit , and the composer-listener rift I have described is now the closest in thirty-five years to closure.
Once, I would have tolled a bell of doom for the drawing a quartering of the art, as I saw it, by avant-garde insularity at one end and the "big business" treatment of music of the past on the other. Now I feel such moaning is uncalled for. With respect to the interface between composer and listener as contemporaries, things are not yet what they need to be, but they are further along than they have been.
Nonetheless I should like to try to further things just a bit more by a series of essays on this page, looking at various issues that have been raised by modern music. I think a finger needs to be pointed, accusative or supportive , respectively, at fractious prejudice which drives music into "camps," and at principles which, on the other hand, hold true for all effective music. It is these latter principles -- of how music, and which music, speaks to people -- that form the basis of my convictions and, moreover, have always served to unite the art and its followers, in any period.
When composers show a reluctance to divorce dynamic, humane communication from high-quality work, and audiences can demonstrate an openness to what is manifestly goodm about the music of their own time -- thenm the two can rediscover mutual trust. Healthy musical art is born of such trust, and few better goals could exist, for music's deepest admirers, than that.